Step 6a: Going the traditional route.This is where this series of posts gets a little tricky. The next steps depend on whether you want to go the traditional route or want to self-publish, on what it is you want to publish (a short work vs. a book), and on whether you want to make money off your writing. In this post I'll focus on the traditional route for short works of fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction; in the next post (Step 6b) I'll focus on self-publishing.
But first, I'd like to clarify what I mean by "the traditional route." For my purposes, it means that someone who's in the business of making writers' work publicly available makes something I wrote publicly available. (And by "in the business," I do not necessarily mean "gets paid" to do so. Some very reputable journals are run by a staff of volunteers.) This may be a looser definition than yours: it includes getting published online as well as in print, and under this definition someone publishing a podcast online of you reading your work at an open mic counts.
When I recently decided to go the traditional route with some of my poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction, I asked published writers and people in the publishing industry for advice--and thought back to my ex-boyfriend's process for getting his poetry published (he was published a lot)--and here's the process I've settled on:
i. Research publications. I get started by Googling publications I've heard of/read, asking my writer-friends where they've been published, checking out the literary journals section of my local bookstore, and asking creative writing professors. It snowballs from there. [9/7/12 Update: A couple of friends suggested DuoTrope, and now I recommend it to you. Amazing resource for finding publications and managing submissions. You can even filter by publications that pay.]
At first I'm mainly looking for whether they publish poetry, creative non-fiction, or fiction (and if fiction, whether they only accept contemporary fiction or are open to genre fiction) and am reading to get a sense of the editors' tastes to see if my work will fit in.
Once I have a few publications in mind that might be a good fit for what I've written, I pay close attention to the submission guidelines. Do they pay the authors of accepted submissions? Do they do themed issues or contests? Do they take simultaneous submissions (e.g. can I submit the same piece to them and to other publications at the same time)? Do they accept previously published work? Do they accept electronic submission or only hard copy? What are their style requirements? Etc., etc.
I'm also interested in what the authors have put in their bios. Two reasons for this: first, reading other people's bios can give me inspiration for what to put in mine; second, when I like a piece I look to see where else the author has been published and thus get ideas for other publications to research. This is how it snowballs.
ii. Proofread for the publication's style guidelines. Okay, yes, I know I said to proofread in Step 4, but it's super important to follow the publication's submission guidelines when you submit, so I have this second round of proofreading to make sure that I'm respecting the rules. It may require taking out the serial commas (or putting them in), taking my name off the heading of the document, inserting page numbers in a particular place, saving as a different file type, etc. As long as they don't interfere with the quality of my piece, I follow submission guidelines to the letter.
iii. Craft a cover letter. Usually the submission guidelines will tell you exactly what to put into your cover letter. Standard fare: title(s) of submission(s), type of work (e.g. poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction), number of words, whether it's a simultaneous submission, which issue you're aiming for, and a brief bio that may include where else you've been published before. Compared to trying to sell a book, this type of cover letter is a piece of cake. Except the short bio part. That's hard. But that's where studying other people's short bios comes in handy.
iv. Send it off and have a celebratory beer. I've put myself out there! Regardless of whether the piece ends up being accepted, taking the leap is something to celebrate. (Come to think of it, I just submitted a creative non-fiction piece last week. I owe myself a beer.)
v. Weather the rejection. I will just be honest: I have not yet had to deal with much rejection for the simple fact that I have not yet submitted much of my work. I do remember being rejected by the editorial board of my undergraduate college's lit mag. I felt confused and a little hurt. But the other pieces I've had published in the traditional manner were accepted on the first try.
However, my other published writer friends tell me that rejection is a normal part of the process, and since I'll be revising and submitting at least six new pieces in the next couple of months (plus the one that I've already submitted and am waiting to hear back on), I am braced for rejection and determined not to lose faith in myself or my work as a result of it. (We shall see how well I do there. Might need more beer.)
vi. Try, try again until it gets accepted. Announce the acceptance to all my friends and family, then have another beer.
Previous posts in this series:
Step 1: Write
Step 2: Share it
Step 3: Revise
Step 4: Edit and proofread
Step 5: Make some decisions